Martin Luther – A Brief Biography

Martin Luther was a German-born professor of theology who lived from 1483 to 1546. He was married to a former nun Katharina von Bora and had 6 children. Most famously known for his 95 Theses, he spent his early years studying law and after as an Augustinian monk. Luther was the forerunner of the reformation and openly opposed the practices of the Roman Catholic Church; practices common to the Catholic Church then include the concept of purgatory and the selling of indulgences1. Luther translated the bible from Latin to German, increasing the bible’s accessibility to the ‘laity’. Luther was excommunicated2 by Pope Leo X in 1520 for his belief and remains so to this day.

Martin Luther was the eldest son of Hans Luther and Margarethe Lindermann. Luther’s father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters. He served on the local council as one of four representatives.  Luther’s mother was described as a hard-working woman of trading-class stock. Hans Luther was determined to see his eldest become a lawyer (not an uncommon Singaporean ambition). He sent Luther to a school known as the Brethren of Common Life in Eisenach in 1498 (a Christian school characterized by many extra-biblical rules). Luther compared his time there in the school to ‘purgatory and hell’. Following this, he matriculated into the University of Erfurt where he honoured his father’s wishes and studied law. However, his study of law was short-lived as he dropped out almost immediately. Luther believed that the law represented uncertainty and sought assurances for life through Theology and Philosophy. Luther was deeply influenced by two tutors: Bartholomaeus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter. He was taught to question even the greatest thinkers and to verify for himself through experience (I am sure this built the foundation for him to question an unrefuted culture). Philosophy was unsatisfying to Luther as he felt that philosophy dealt too much with reason and too little with the love of God. For Luther, reason can be used to question men and institutions. However, spiritual matters can only be approached through divine revelation and Scripture.

On 2 July 1505, Luther was returning to university on horseback after a trip home. While journeying, a lightning bolt struck near him during a thunderstorm. Luther later told his father that he feared the incident as divine judgment. He cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” He viewed the cry for help as an unbreakable vow. He dropped out, sold his books, and entered St. Augustine’s Monastery on 17 July 1505. Luther’s father was enraged over what he saw as a waste of Luther’s education. His monastic life in the Augustinian order involved fasting, long hours in prayer, and frequent confession. However, what Luther saw as an evil period of his life, God meant for good.  Johann von Staupitz, his superior at the Monastery, pointed Luther’s mind away from the continual reflection of his sins and towards the merits of Christ. He taught that true repentance does not involve self-inflicted penances but rather a change of heart.  Martin Luther himself remarked, “If it had not been for Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.” Despite his indirect contribution to the reformation, Staupitz repudiated the reformation when it occurred. Luther’s recount of his time as a monk can be summarized through his words “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” Testimonies like these give us a lot to think about.

The start of the reformation begun when a Dominican Friar named Johann Tetzel was given authority by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences in Germany to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel’s experience as a preacher of indulgence led to his appointment as general commissioner by the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Brandenburg. Albrecht obtained permission from Pope Leo X to sell plenary indulgences; half the proceeds went to St. Peter’s Basilica’s construction and the other, to pay for Albrecht’s benefices. Together, Tetzel preached the importance of indulgences and Albrecht sold the indulgence. Luther addressed this subterfuge in a letter to Albrecht.

On 31 October 1517, Luther wrote to Albrecht, protesting the sale of indulgences. He included a copy of his letter the “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”. This later came to be known as his 95 Theses. Among other things, Luther objected to the jingle by Tetzel that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. He insisted instead that forgiveness was God’s alone to grant. Those who made the claim that indulgences could absolve buyers’ loved ones from punishment in ‘purgatory’ (itself an unbiblical concept) were patently false. He further elaborated that Christians must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances. The Theses, originally written in Latin, were translated to German for widespread use. Within two weeks, they had spread throughout Germany and made their way to France, England, and Italy.

Martin Luther faced no small opposition for his refutation of the Catholic Church. He risked the wrath of prominent figures up to and including the Pope for his dissertations. The Catholic Church sent theologians to disprove Luther’s claims which could do nothing to dissuade him from the truth. Luther faced ex-communication, being charged before a secular council, for his letters against the church.

On 15 June 1520, Pope Leo X gave Luther an ultimatum. Unless Luther recanted the belief in his letters, he would be excommunicated from the church. Luther refused to recant, resulting in his expulsion from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church also sought to ban the distribution of Luther’s 95 Theses. On 18 April 1521, Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms3.  Presiding over the Diet were prominent members of the Holy Roman Empire, including Emperor Charles V. Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony obtained a safe-conduct for Luther’s travel to and from the meeting which lasted from 28 January to 25 May 1521. However, Prince Frederick later had Luther intercepted on his way home in the forest near Wittenberg by masked horsemen impersonating highway robbers. They kept Luther in Wartburg castle during which he translated the New Testament from Greek to German. When the Emperor gave the Edict of Worms, Luther was declared an outlaw. His literature was banned and his arrest required. Offering Luther food and shelter was a crime and killing him was also permitted without legal consequence. Luther secretly left Wartburg and returned to Wittenberg on 6 March 1522. Luther’s battle with Rome took a toll on his health and he battled many diseases. Luther died on 18 February 1546 his last words being “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God”

I would like to tell you what Luther told the Diet when asked if he stood by his writings. He said Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”. Do not take his word nor the words on this page for what to scripture says. Rather, test the spirit with the Bible as your guide.

Martin Luther’s Timeline

1Indulgences are sold as relief to the temporal punishment of sin

2Excommunication is the official exclusion of someone from partaking in the sacraments and service of the Christian Church

3A Diet is a deliberative body and Worms is a place in Germany. The Diet of Worms was in fact, not a place where people gathered to eat worms

References:

(2) Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 45–50, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 8 Luther’s Works.

(3) Hillerbrand, Hans J. “Martin Luther: Indulgences and salvation,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007.

(4) Brecht, 2:18–21

(5) “Johann Tetzel,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007, The reformation in Germany, Henry Clay Vedder, 1914, Macmillan Company, p. 405.

(6) Hillerbrand, Hans J. “Martin Luther: Indulgences and salvation,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007

(7) Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. tr. James L. Schaaf, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93, 1:204–05

(10) Papal Encyclicals Online. “The Bull “Decet Romanum Pontificem” – Leo X Excommunicates Martin Luther – Rome, 1521 January 3rd”

(13) Bratcher, Dennis. “The Diet of Worms (1521),” in The Voice: Biblical and Theological Resources for Growing Christians.

(14) Reeves, Michael. “The Unquenchable Flame”. Nottingham: IVP, 2009, p. 60

Compiled by J.L.